The old man with the story to tell stood all through the day, stooping over a table to sign the books people put before him.
Warren Tsuneishi was not the most famous author at the National Book Festival on the Mall yesterday, and technically he was a contributor to a long tome, but he had a day any author would envy -- he signed and sold every copy of "Voices of War," a compilation by the Library of Congress and National Geographic of memoirs from veterans of foreign conflicts, in just under two hours.
"I didn't know there would be so many people who would want me to sign it," the 83-year-old World War II U.S. Army veteran whispered when he finished with all 100 books, smiling brightly.
Tens of thousands of book lovers streamed to the Mall yesterday for the fourth annual literary festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress and Laura Bush. The crowds packed almost every author presentation and snapped up books, freebies and author autographs with abandon.
The bright orange C-SPAN tote bags went fast, all 25,000 of them, and became the day's de rigueur accessory. "At the height of it, there was a double line for the bags going back to where you see that dog over there," said Matthew McGuire, a C-SPAN account representative, pointing to a spot halfway across the Mall.
In the book-sales tent, crowds surged past mystery novels stacked up like firewood. Michelle Slankord was in line with "Dessert University," the cookbook by former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier. She dashed out of his standing-room-only presentation to buy it, then get in line for him to sign it.
"We stood in line this morning for two hours so my daughter could get E.L. Konigsburg's autograph," she said, referring to the critically acclaimed children's book author. "And then the line closed. We never got it signed. It happens."
Equally determined, but for the authorial squiggle of fantasy novelist and comic book cult figure Neil Gaiman, was Rockville's Sean Mahaffy.
"The range of cultures and theologies he pulls from," said Mahaffy, when asked to explain the appeal of Gaiman's DC Comics "Sandman" series.
Mahaffy and several friends were the first in line for Gaiman's held-over-by-popular-demand afternoon signing session. Gaiman's hour-long morning session had simply not been long enough; too many people still in line. Being a good sport, a savvy businessman or, perhaps, a happy combination, Gaiman had announced he would sign again after his presentation.
Mahaffy and crew stood in line for the next four hours. There were hundreds of people behind them.
"It's worth it, it's worth it," Mahaffy laughed. He wants to have all of his first editions signed by Gaiman. He's brought three books today.
There was a rustle up front, something was happening at the signing table, and Gaiman appeared, in black leather jacket, black shirt, black jeans and tousled black hair.
"Hey, guys," he called out to the faithful, settling in the chair.
"Two copies only, he's signing two copies only," the organizers called out.
Mahaffy grimaced -- he's going to go home with a book unsigned.
Best-selling authors of mainstream fiction, a few tents away, were also speaking to crowds of several hundred at a time.
Princeton graduates Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason regaled their audience with the tale of how a university writing project became the runaway hit "The Rule of Four."
After several excited early drafts, they discovered they had led their characters "off a cliff" at story's end. So they sat down and redesigned the plot-driven novel, working backward to set up the final effect.
The resulting outline took 10 months and was 150 pages long.
"That was probably overkill," said Thomason.
"Prob-a-bly," deadpanned Caldwell, drawing a roar of laughter.
Floyd Cooper, the children's book illustrator who painted the 2004 festival poster, had a much younger crowd tickled with his display of how to draw a picture -- with an eraser.
He started out with a piece of brown paper and began rubbing it with a special rubber eraser. A cloud appeared. He rubbed down the side of the cloud, around the bottom, a stroke down the middle. Now it was a face. Strokes to the top, three quick stripes across it -- a Native American man appeared, a feather tucked behind his head. Cooper quickly added a ponytail, a necklace of claws, shark teeth -- and Froot Loops.
The kids gathered at the front burst into laughter.
"Froot Loops in your hair -- I hate when that happens," Cooper laughed, daubing in the effect.
And it was the soft-spoken Tsuneishi who had one of the most subtle and moving stories of the day.
The son of Japanese immigrants, born in California on the Fourth of July, 1921, he and his entire family were sent to an internment camp after Pearl Harbor. Still, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent the war in the Pacific, translating captured Japanese military documents. Many of them had been pulled off the bodies of enemy soldiers.
He survived the war, as did his three brothers, and he came home to a career as a librarian in Asian studies. Now retired, he contributed to "Voices of War," a Library of Congress veterans history project, so his story would be preserved in the American experience of war.
"We were brought up in the Confucian tradition," he says, explaining his background, "but I always considered myself an American. I went to war to prove it."